Taissumani, Feb. 4
February 7 marks the beginning of Nunavut Language Week. A major event will be held in Iqaluit during that week, billed as a Nunavut-wide Inuit Language Standardization Symposium.
It is unclear at this writing whether the focus of discussion will be on standardization of dialect to be used for official purposes, or whether it will focus on standardization of the writing system. Or perhaps both.
This promises to be an interesting conference because Inuit, like people everywhere, are passionately attached to their language, and especially protective of the use and preservation of regional or community dialects.
The issue of writing system is one that is often discussed in Nunavut. It might be instructive to look at some of the debate that has surrounded discussions of orthographic changes in the past.
In 1974, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs provided Inuit Tapirisat of Canada with money to fund an Inuit Language Commission.
The executive director of the commission was a young Jose Kusugak, whose presence will certainly be missed at this upcoming meeting. One of the commission’s mandates was “to study the present state of the written language and recommend changes for the future.”
People were immediately suspicious. It quickly became apparent that Inuit were hesitant to even consider the possibility of orthographic change. The commission reassured them that standardization of orthography did not mean standardization of dialect.
The commission eventually came up with a standard Roman orthography – a standard way of writing Inuktitut using the English alphabet – and a standardized way of writing Syllabics – because Syllabics had varied regionally, depending especially on the religion of the user.
[For those not familiar with the terms used to describe Inuit writing systems, there are basically two – Syllabics, which is used in most of Nunavut and Nunavik; and a system using the same alphabet that English uses, generally called the Roman orthography, because it was based on the Roman alphabet.]
As a result of the work of the commission, the two systems, Roman and Syllabics, were completely compatible and interchangeable with each other.
Material written in one method could easily be transliterated into the other orthography. It was, in fact, one system with two orthographic forms, and for that reason it has since been called a “dual orthography.”
The dual orthography was ratified in August of 1976. The two forms were even given distinctive Inuktitut names.
The word “Qaliujaaqpait” described the Roman orthography. The name was suggested by Abe Okpik, because the appearance of the Roman letters resembled markings or the grain in rocks.
“Qaniujaaqpait” was used to describe Syllabics, the word being derived from “qaniq,” meaning “mouth.”
The revisions to Syllabics have been generally accepted in Nunavut, less so in Nunavik where modern computer technology has made possible a return to the previous four-vowel system. The parallel Roman system has been little used except as a teaching device.
In Nunavut, most of the population uses Syllabics but in the western Kitikmeot region an alphabetic system has always been used. The official Roman system was not readily adopted there. People resisted it, preferring to use the system they had grown up with.
Inevitably, some people feared that the development of an official Roman orthography might mean that Syllabics would be abandoned. Simeonie Amagoalik of Resolute wrote, “The system of writing in syllabic must not be removed, because Inuit are so used to it and understand it. For the sake of older folks especially, the system of syllabic must continue to be used.”
Caleb Apak of Igloolik cautiously approved of standardiazation at least of the Syllabic system. He wrote, “The system of writing must be improved because there are variations in our language. If syllabics system improves we could understand more.”
Calls for a complete abandonment of the Syllabic writing system are sometimes made, the argument being that Syllabics is holding Inuit back.
These suggestions are generally met with an outcry of support for the retention of Syllabics. The suggestion of language change always excites passionate argument.
In 1976 the language commission recommended that “this dual system of writing should be reviewed after five or ten years of use to measure its effectiveness and make revisions where necessary.” That review has never taken place. Perhaps it will begin at next week’s symposium.